Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Review: Castle Zagyg, Vol. II: The Upper Works

I've already posted a few times about this boxed set from Troll Lord Games, but held off doing a full-blown review until I had time to read through the books. Well, I've read 'em, and I'm ready to go. Any possible spoilers have been hidden through the wonders of inviso-text which is marked by a pair of asterisks; just highlight between the two asterisks to make it magically appear; read at your own peril.

Simply put, this is a magnificent product, with only a few flaws that keep it from being a masterpiece.

The box comes with six separate books plus maps, including illustrations for the DM (well, Castle Keeper, I guess) to show players in certain locations. Most of the books cover the above-ground portions of the most famous castle in all of RPGing; the place is so detailed that separate books are given for the castle ruins, the towers along the walls, and the fortress proper. Two books are devoted to underground locales; the Mouths of Madness and the Storerooms, which together form the first level of the dungeon proper. The other book holds the aforementioned illustrations and a passel of maps.

The module (if so small a word can legitimately be used to describe such a massive product) is designed for use with TLG's Castles and Crusades game, which has the benefit of being almost 100% compatible with AD&D. Only some quick conversions of money and armor class (and a couple of other minor things) are required, and these can easily be done by the DM on the fly. Where needed, conversion notes are conveniently given in the product itself, either in the beginning or interspersed throughout the text, as appropriate. Very helpful.

The module's origins in the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting are deep and clear; only the names have been changed due to obvious legal ramifications. But even those changes are not overwhelming, and most DMs with a fair knowledge of Greyhawk should be able to make the appropriate substitutions with little trouble. * One example is the presence of agents of The Crimson Hand, which is an order of monks dedicated to both evil and the superiority of their ethnic group; obviously a gloss for the Scarlet Brotherhood. * Deities are described in generalities rather than by name (with a few exceptions), so it shouldn't be too hard to figure out that "a Celestial Deity from your campaign" is Celestian, "a god of darkness and death" is Nerull, etc. Even when gods are named, the conversion to a Greyhawk equivalent is obvious. There are also much more obscure "Easter eggs" thrown in for aficionados such as myself to find, sometimes setting things up for future releases in such a way that demonstrates that great forethought went into the overall design of the project, and the mindset was not "well, we got this boxed set out the door; what should we do now?" * (Just one example, the secret door that will ultimately lead to the land of Yin and Yang, exactly as described in one of the Gord the Rogue short stories.) *

I've already covered the question of Gary Gygax's authorship of the module in a previous post; he apparently handed over detailed notes, those were turned into text by Jeffrey P. Talanian, and Gygax then edited the text with a heavy hand. That's more than good enough for me. The tone of the prose is pure Gygax, and harkens back to the heyday of Temple of Elemental Evil (only in terms of the writing; not the contents of the module). The interior artwork looks fine to me, but I've never really focused on those pictures that are intended only for the DM; others will I'm sure have much more to say on that particular subject. The maps are simply gorgeous; not only clear and useful from a utilitarian point of view, but aesthetically pleasing and beautifully executed.

It should be pointed out that the surface ruins were entirely ignored in previous versions of the Castle that Gary had designed; all the action was focused on the dungeons themselves. I like the fact that they are now fully fleshed out, but * I wish that more obvious and direct means of entering the dungeons had been included (other than the Mouths of Madness-- see below), so characters wishing to focus more on them as did the likes of Robilar and Melf could do so.*

The module is designed for PCs of levels 1-4 or thereabouts, but I think it's incumbent on any DM to remind his or her players that in this style of game not every encounter is meant to be overcome. Sometimes the proper strategy is to run away, and that's one of the fundamentals of "old school gaming" that this adventure definitely reinforces. That said, the DM must not be afraid to punish overly-confident players.

I'm not sure I like the Mouths of Madness, which comprise a portion of the first dungeon level. It is too much an allusion to the Caves of Chaos from Gygax's module B2 Keep on the Borderlands, and I don't think they fit with the concept of the mega-dungeon as a whole. They're almost too... mundane for the place. When I DM the Castle, *I might just keep them cut off from the rest of the Storerooms level.*

I definitely do not like the "Curse of Fog and Frogs". It is a ham-fisted device designed to keep players out of areas of the castle or dungeons that either have not been released by the publisher or that the DM has not yet purchased (or is not ready for his players to explore). The fact that, once the full series of boxed sets (at least one more and most probably two more) are released the entire concept will become an unnecessary anachronism, makes it all the worse to me. I would much rather the whole problem be left to the DM's ingenuity, as it would eventually disappear anyway. But in the grand scope of this mega-adventure, these are relatively minor problems, and they are obviously not deal-breakers in any sense of the term.

It is my sincere hope that future releases in this series are many and often. I also hope that Gary's untimely death will not negatively impact the quality of future modules. If they are as good as this one, TLG will have done the entire role-playing community an enormous service.

FINAL RATING: Four stars out of five